Art is within us, even more than we ourselves are within us.
Barbara Kozłowska, 1976
Can the climate disaster, the refugee crises or the spectre of war have its expression in art? Given its universalism, is art an effective tool for speaking about something that is happening here and now? When spending time with Jerzy Skolimowski’s paintings, I became convinced that nothing other than art, especially abstract art, is capable of accommodating not so much current events as the feelings that go with them. The state that the artist is in may turn out to be the same as the one which we ourselves are in. All we need to do is look with attention.
The several dozen paintings that form Jerzy Skolimowski’s exhibition at the Manggha Museum are primarily abstract works, paintings that he has consistently created since the 1960s and exhibited all over the world for nearly three decades. It is not, however, my intention here to focus on numbers, or on Skolimowski’s oeuvre or career; all there is to be said about that has already been said. I would rather prefer to focus on that very private moment when the artist stands before a canvas. Who is he at those times, what does he leave behind, what does he look at, what does he change, and what is left once that encounter is over?
‘In a creative act, I embrace random chance with open arms,’ Skolimowski has told me. Random chance is not just a form of expression here, but rather, much as is the case with the composer John Cage, a form of giving life to something new. Cage trusted the Buddhist philosophy, in which chance lies at the beginning of creation. He began some of his compositions with a ritual consisting in scattering sticks, and their resultant alignment, which, of course, was random, provided the starting point for his work. He allowed the performers of his compositions to choose sounds by drawing lots and told them to cast a dice to select the tempo for the piece. Skolimowski’s paintings are created as a consequence of a similarly understood inner logic. The first gesture is sometimes a matter of chance, the second is a response to the first brushstroke – as though painting were a performance art act, and the pictorial composition resembled a melody replete with counterpoints. This is how you create a painting which, admittedly, completely belongs to the artist but, paradoxically, is not entirely dependent on him. What is up to the artist is when to abandon his work, interrupt the process. ‘The most important moment in the creative process is the decision on when to stop,’ Skolimowski says. So it is not action that is the most important but rather lack of action, attaining a stasis. The philosophers of technology ask whether our free will is an algorithm with a limited number of options. And perhaps the only thing that makes humans different from machines is that the former can stay unpredictable to the end?
It is no secret that Jerzy Skolimowski does not use any sketches. He doesn’t approach a canvas with a specific plan. In the context of his career as a filmmaker, such a ploy can be perceived as a shocking change in behaviour. There is, however, one rule that Skolimowski has followed for years. When he directs, he does not paint. These two worlds practically don’t overlap with him. Artistically, Skolimowski the director and Skolimowski the painter are two different individuals or, as the artist says himself, ‘two separate areas in the brain.’
Let us try to grasp this by looking at his paintings. Irrespective of their remoteness in time, it would be difficult to say which of these works were made at specific locations. Most of those that we can view in the exhibition were made either in Malibu on the US West Coast, in Poland, or in Sicily, where he has spent his winters for years. His stay in 2020 got extended for several months. The unusual extension was caused by the pandemic. The paintings that he made there are dark in tone; some make a reference to the azure of the sky, or so it seems to me at least, while others are completely detached from the nature of the place. As though these two realities – that of the luxury of being stuck at a beautiful place and that of the terror that we experienced irrespective of status because Covid had triggered an existential fear in all of us – filtered over into the paintings.
Abstract and abstracted from specific meanings, the paintings become part of my and your experience. Cloistered in shelters of better or worse quality, some of us ill, some not, we experienced what Skolimowski has painted. No one needs to explain this experience to us, no one has to elucidate it. We can understand each other without words. After all, there is in these paintings the springtime that we were prevented from seeing, there is the fear of dying, and the vision of the end of the world. Most importantly, there is more in these paintings than the artist wanted to put in them, and that is the greatest of arts.
To relax a bit, I suggest looking at the paintings where we can spot specific figures. Hanging on a wall at Skolimowski’s home is a picture painted with Francis Bacon’s flair, a woman’s portrait. It’s Nancy Reagan. Skolimowski met her at a dinner in Washington in the 1980s. He kept looking at her up close and saw how the first lady’s skin was covered with a thick hard layer of makeup that could fall off at any moment like poorly applied render from a wall and reveal the truth about what was beneath. Another painting, a triple portrait of Queen Elizabeth, was made after the director met the Queen of England. Skolimowski recalls that the singular experience was preceded by a drill clarifying all the dos and don’ts in Her Majesty’s presence, with emphasis on the fact that there are practically no dos. These events can be perceived as the stuff of society pages – a celebrated film director meets the greats of this world – but the meetings can also be given a different interpretation. They are primarily events that astound Skolimowski. He is not just asking ‘Why am I here?’ but also ‘Why is the world that I’m in so strange, so incomprehensible?’ My impression is that painting those pictures enabled him to gain a better understanding of what he had taken part in, to come to terms with and internalize that experience.
To stay a bit longer with his portraits, let us move on to Portrait in Shreds
. The piece takes the genre of portrait painting to a completely new level. We are looking at a black vibrating outline of a human figure emerging from white. Formally, this resembles an act of vandalism, in the vein of thoughtlessly adolescent carvings in tree bark. Skolimowski again escapes the conventions of painting here. Of course you can sense some affinity with Francis Bacon’s work in this painting, and somewhere in the background there’s a whiff of Julian Schnabel, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, or even the abstraction in the paintings of Jasper Johns, all of them artists who actually quite successfully looked for ‘painting outside painting’. They escaped what the academy and tradition had taught them. Skolimowski does not need to escape anything because he went into painting on his own terms. He doesn’t care about settling disputes, whether what he has created is an abstraction or a dramatic representation. What can be heard in the story that he tells is existential weight instead.
‘This is not a portrait of a specific person but rather of the gradual disintegration that life subjects us to. It’s a gradual process of erosion. A human person falls apart into shards, shreds,’ the artist says, aware of impermanence. When looking at this painting, I see something more. I can’t tear my eyes away from these yellow-golden brushstrokes near the head. Here we are facing a crowned head, or maybe just a Stańczyk, an Eulenspiegel-like prankster who has snatched the king’s crown and is dancing on the table with it. I look at the vibrating shape and Alfred Jarry’s comedy Ubu Roi
comes to my mind. The king is insane, and we are the king.
It seems to me that any attempt to provide an answer to the question ‘What is Jerzy Skolimowski’s art about?’, to ascribe a specific agenda to it, is doomed to failure and in a way an insult to his work. When Skolimowski paints, he puts himself in a state that we could describe as meditation, or, less literally, as deep listening to his inner self. In this state, words lose their meaning, objects lose their shape and colour. The paintings are ultimately Skolimowski’s conversation with himself. They are unique because it is only through painting that you can attain a state that will not be afforded by writing a screenplay or working on the set. Abstract art is a liberation for states that cannot be satisfied by any other form of creative endeavour.
When the two of us find ourselves standing in front of a huge painting, Jerzy Skolimowski invites me to touch the canvas. ‘A painting is an object intended to be alive,’ he says while touching the canvas himself. The painting has a pleasantly warm temperature, a surprisingly delicate texture. The touch resembles the act of extending a hand to someone. I am looking at a painting lit by sunshine coming in through a huge window with a vista of Warsaw. If we were to be transferred thousands of miles eastwards, or back in time to Jerzy Skolimowski’s earliest years, we would see sooty ruins. We can’t understand the world even though we would very much want to. We are all children of random chance; Skolimowski’s paintings make me feel it more acutely.
Aleksander Hudzik, March 2022